How Safe is Our City?
There is no more intractable or pervasive issue in New Orleans than crime. More than any other topic, it dominates our headlines and frustrates broader efforts toward improving quality of life in the city and the region. It shapes and upends the lives of a devastating number of our friends and neighbors, and unsettles our civic consciousness.
I remember reading a national news piece a few years ago about a recent New Orleans high school graduate who had, by the time she turned 18, lost over 20 friends to gun violence.
Consider this: according to a recent report published by the University of New Orleans, nearly half (47 percent) of New Orleans residents hear gunfire in their neighborhoods at least a few times a year. Almost a third (30 percent) of New Orleanians or their family members have been a victim of a crime in the last three years. About half of our city’s residents (49 percent) believe that it is the single biggest issue in the city, and 53 percent believe that crime has become more prevalent, not less, despite the many conspicuous and purposeful initiatives to fight it.
Our city’s perceptions of and experiences with crime are, I believe, informed and refined by data, which show that, at least from a statistical perspective, New Orleanians are safer from the most heinous crimes but more susceptible to overall crime than we were a few years ago.
The most reliable and consistent source of year-over-year crime data is published annually in the FBI’s Unified Crime Reports, which collects and standardizes violent and property crimes reported by law enforcement agencies throughout the country. The FBI rightly cautions users of this data against drawing simple conclusions from what is ultimately nuanced and complicated data, especially in comparing statistics among jurisdictions. Accordingly, I have made every effort to use the data to primarily make year-to-year observations for New Orleans and to compare our city’s crime figures with other areas sparingly.
First, and most obviously, the city’s homicide rate (technically speaking, our murder and non-negligent manslaughter rate) is perennially high. Between 2000 and 2014—the most recent year of complete data available—New Orleans’ murder rate has been the highest in the nation nine out of 15 times. With the exception of 2005 and 2006, our rate has always been among the top three highest nationwide. Throughout this period, more than 40 per 100,000 New Orleans residents have been murdered in all but three years.
Over time, however, our murder rate has been declining at an encouraging rate. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of homicides per 100,000 residents dropped from 51.7 to 38.7, a decline of 25 percent. (The overall number of murders did increase in 2015, but the final numbers used to calculate the rate have not been released.) This reflects, but also far outpaces, a national trend; the number of homicides per 100,000 residents nationwide decreased from 5.0 to 4.5 (10 percent) during this same period. We’re still a far cry from the mid-1990s, when the city’s murder rate exceeded 85 per 100,000 residents.
On the other hand, the city’s overall rate of violent crimes and property crimes has not improved in recent years. In 2009, the city reported 777 violent crimes per 100,000 residents; in 2014, this number grew to 974. Likewise, there were 3,846 property crimes per 100,000 residents reported in 2009 and 4,232 in 2014. Nationally, the violent crime rates declined from 432 to 365 per 100,000 residents during the same period, and the property crime rate dropped from 3,041 to 2,596.
Unfortunately, good news or bad, there’s little solace in statistics on this issue. We are all aware of crime’s impacts on our own everyday lives—it is both the cause and culmination of many of our city’s most pressing and deep-rooted challenges.
Robert Edgecombe is an urban planner and consultant at GCR Inc. He advises a wide range of clients on market conditions, recovery strategies, and demographic and economic trends.